Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Prairie-Grass Dividing, The" (1860)
Author:
Schneider, Steven P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"The Prairie-Grass Dividing" was originally number 25 in the "Calamus" cluster. After some minor changes, it took its final form in 1867.

The poem celebrates the inhabitants of the prairies, "Those of the open atmosphere, coarse, sunlit, fresh, nutritious." Throughout his poetic career, Whitman envisioned the prairies as the home of a mythical race. Long before the poet ever visited the plains states, he incorporated into his poetry the geography of the plains and the men who inhabited them.

Whitman's romanticized description of those who lived in the prairies reflects his faith in inland America: "Those of earth-born passion, simple, never constrain'd, never obedient." Characteristically, Whitman fails to consider that those whom he extols with such sweeping praise may have had a hand in the slaughter of the buffalo or the killing of Native Americans and the seizure of their lands.

That Whitman places this poem in the "Calamus" section distinguishes it from several other prairie poems. Whitman's use of the verb "demand" near or at the beginning of lines 2, 3, and 4 of the poem suggests the sense of urgency the speaker feels: "Demand the most copious and close companionship of men." Just as the short and tall prairie grasses grow close together, so too did Whitman envision the "close companionship of men." Thus, the prairie grass itself is both an image and a metaphor, the landscape out of which an audacious and lusty race has emerged and the sweet-smelling perfume of copious manly love. The poem is an integral part of Whitman's poetic program in "Calamus," what he describes in Democratic Vistas as "the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy" (Prose Works 2:414).

"The Prairie-Grass Dividing" is a key poem in Whitman's canon. It echoes the sentiment that the westward plains states, with their vast expanses of prairie, are the seat of a vigorous and healthy manhood. The poem also seeks and manifests a "correspondence" between geography and the human body, and between Whitman's love of the land and of his fellow Americans.

Bibliography

Olson, Steven. The Prairie in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1994.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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